The first vegetarian experiences I can remember were in the early eighties, at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles and a date at one of the posh vegetarian restaurants in Santa Monica.
They weren’t good experiences, to say the least. The food wasn’t very tasty so I can understand why vegetarianism wasn’t so popular back then.
When most food writers talk about Vietnamese cuisine they most often mention the usual suspects – noodles, meat and rice dishes — but not much about vegetarian cuisine, or com chay. (Com means rice and chay is vegetarian.)
However, thanks to Saigon’s large Buddhist population, you can find vegetarian eateries pretty much everywhere in the city. Due to an increase in popularity and improvements in food quality in recent years, you can find vegetarian restaurants open throughout the year. Practicing Buddhist monks are vegetarian and most often dine at their temples every day.
Most Buddhists are vegetarian a couple of days a month, especially on Buddhist holidays. One cannot eat in the same place on a daily basis so many Buddhists and monks often venture out to dine at various vegetarian restaurants around the city.
So why try vegetarian? For one it is a cuisine that locals Vietnamese know how to prepare healthily and well. Despite not being a vegetarian, I find that vegetarian food is actually quite good in order to compete against the thousands of other restaurants in the city. Also being a vegetarian is not a big deal in Vietnam, unlike many places in the west.
Here are some of my favorite vegetarian restaurants in Saigon:
1. An Nhien Quan
A friendly, clean and cosy bistro on a quiet street in District 1. Soybean, tofu, green beans and various vegetables dominate the menu. Their banh beo (water fern or steamed rice cake), and lotus fried rice is nice, and the banana flower salad, mushroom spring rolls and hotpot is flavourful and definitely worth a try.
94 Nguyen Van Thu, District 1, 9:30am to 10pm, +84 283910 1129
2. Loving Hut Hoa Dang
One of the most popular vegetarian restaurants in the city. Spacious by Vietnamese standards, bright, clean and always busy. The menu is quite extensive, and my recommendations are the pandan and hoa thien ly (Tonkin jasmine) fried rice, along with braised gluten with coconut juice, okra with roasted garlic and deep-fried oyster mushrooms.
38 Huynh Khuong Ninh, Ward DaKao, District 1, 9:30am to 2pm, 4:30pm to 9pm, +84 283820 9702
3. Buddha Chay Vegetarian Restaurant
Owned by Phi Nhung a famous Viet Kieu singer. It’s small and cozy, with tightly-packed tables and warm service.
This place does some amazing vegetarian dishes, including lau tim thuoc bac (sweet herbal soup hotpot), with sides of vermicelli, tofu, mushrooms and vegetable.
31 Dang Tat Street, Ward Tan Dinh, District 1, 11am to 9pm, +84 283526 5138
4. Buffet Co Noi Restaurant
Located inside Bong Sen 2 Hotel, the buffet includes around 40 different vegetarian items for lunch and dinner. Everything tastes good, the service is friendly and a meal costs between VND160,000 and VND200,000, so definitely worth a try.
61-63 Hai Ba Trung Street, 8th Floor, District 1, Open lunch 11am to 2pm, Dinner 6pm to 10pm, +84 283823 5815
5. Hum Vegetarian, Lounge & Restaurant
Hum has three restaurants in Saigon and all are very popular with expats and locals alike.
2 Thi Sach Street, District 1, +84 283823 8920
32 Vo Van Tan Street, District 3, +84 283930 3819
32 D10 Street, Thao Dien, +84 283519 0109.